Blackfish:When wood was king

Published on Thu, Aug 19, 2004
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Blackfish: When wood was king

by Jack Kintner

Astoria, Oregon, sawmill owner Lee Chambers had a lumberman's appreciation for wood and the ways it could be fashioned into both beautiful and useful objects. In the early 1950's he hired marine architect William Garden to design a cruising boat, something that could comfortably handle the sometimes extreme and always interesting conditions at the notorious Columbia River bar.

Garden, who has a gift for creating boats that are not only comfortable but pleasing to the eye from inside and out, came up with a heavy 56-foot double-ender that Chambers christened the Blackfish, after the native term for the pilot whales that are commonly found on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Not much is known about the boat's early configuration because it was nearly destroyed by an on-board fire a few years after its launch in 1953. Chambers went back to Garden for a re-design of the boat from the deck upward, and the impressive result of their collaboration will be available for tours this weekend at the wooden boat show that's part of the annual Plover Days celebration in the Blaine marina.

Now owned by Mike and Pat Owen of Olympia, it's simply one of the coolest powerboats around. Like most northwest wooden hulls it's made of old-growth fir planks on steamed white oak frames. The interior has wide expanses of Philippine Mahogany that carries its deep and consistent ox blood color throughout the ship, from paneled bulkheads and hatchways to companionway doors, including the large salon table and the settee in the wheelhouse that serves as a chart table, a typically innovative William Garden touch that works so well you'd think it would be found on all boats this size.

Garden's designs always have a lot of ways to get in out of the rain, something his wife was famous for demanding on boats they built for themselves. On Blackfish a large covered fantail is reached by covered companionways leading down each side of the main deck. It's possible to walk out one side of the main cabin, go half way around the boat to the other side and come back in dry as a bone.

There's also, however, a “Portuguese wheel,” a steering station immediately forward of the wheelhouse in a small elevated area that's as directly exposed to the elements as you'd be on a bicycle. It offers a virtually unobstructed view forward and to the port and starboard bows by being forward of but no higher than the inside steering station, sort of a non-flying bridge.

A small and steep companionway inside the wheelhouse leads to the crews' quarters, five bunks plus storage and a head that all fit snugly into the bow. Garden's arrangement gives each a modicum of privacy by separating them just enough so that you're not having to sleep with someone's feet in your face or the inevitable snoring crewmember doing his wounded walrus routine in your ear.

Moving aft through the crews' quarters leads to a real engine room, one you can not only stand up in but that has its own workbench and tools. The engine, a Cat D-3 18 generating 90 horsepower, is the original diesel Chambers equipped it with 51 years ago. Owen says he gets about seven to eight knots at a little over two gallons per hour.

Back up through the wheelhouse and aft, you enter the large and spacious salon that feels more like a quiet corner in a restaurant. The galley is forward and to port, the companionway to starboard and to the rear it's all windows, benches and soft pillows surrounding a broad and inviting mahogany table. A twisting stairway in the back leads down to the master stateroom, remarkably private given its convenient location.
Behind all this is a covered fantail big enough for a boatload of explorers to wash off the mud of a remote island or for a few friends to fish for salmon without bumping elbows. The boat's extensive 16-foot beam is carried well aft giving the stern platform a lot of space, and above it a dinghy is stored on the fantail roof, complete with its own launching crane.

Owen intends to charter the Blackfish next summer in the area, “hopefully right out of Blaine,” he said, offering everything from week-long cruises to evening sunset dinner tours of the bay. In the meantime, treat yourself to a look inside one of the finer examples of northwest wooden boat craftsmanship you're likely to find, this weekend at Plover Days down at the marina. Blackfish will be moored at the guest dock, right in front of gate two.